The Webber Journal, Installment II

Before Bernie Webber made the heroic rescue portrayed in the movie ‘The Finest Hours,’ he was assistant keeper of the Gay Head Light.

The white spot at the cliff's edge at the top left of this photo shows where the now demolished Lifeboat Station had been, with the Gay Head Light in the center.

In 1947, five years before he rescued 32 crew members from a sinking tanker off the coast of Chatham, Bernie Webber was stationed in Gay Head, and in a memoir written many years later, he recounts those early years. In the first installment, Bernie arrived on the Island, got a quick introduction, and was delivered to the remote outpost in Gay Head that would serve as his home for several years to come.

In this installment, Bernie gets familiar with his makeshift digs, receives a somewhat less than warm welcome, and learns about a special relationship the crew has with the neighbors.

Installment 2: Tough times for Gay Headers

Although assigned to become the assistant keeper of the Gay Head Lighthouse, I was required to live at the Coast Guard lifeboat station. There were two houses at the light, one for the “head keep,” the other for his assistant. Frank Grieder, the head keep, occupied one of the houses with his wife Else and son Frank Jr. The other house was to remain vacant.

Frank Sr. was a civilian serving in the Lighthouse Service (LHS) when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, as were keepers Ponsart and Fuller at West Chop Light. They were allowed to remain in LHS status until their retirement rather than shift over into the Coast Guard.

Like many others in the LHS, they were not pleased about the Coast Guard takeover. So the dwelling at the lighthouse normally provided for the assistant lighthouse keeper would remain empty to appease the situation, and I would continue to live at the lifeboat station for the next couple of years.

The population of Gay Head at the time consisted mostly of members of the Gay Head Indian tribe; names like Vanderhoop, Manning, and Attaquin come to mind. The rest of the population was made up of the Grieders at the lighthouse, and the Coast Guardsmen at the lifeboat station: O’Brian, Rich, Allison (all from Chatham), Wheeler, Bolling, Chance, Dodds, Walsh (from Oak Bluffs), and Pyne, Cabral, Grey (from Block Island). Some were more often referred to by nicknames like Bugsy, Pogey-Bait, Georgia, Fly, and and Red.

The lifeboat station reservation consisted of a main building having three rooms downstairs, kitchen, mess hall, and a combination office-bedroom-bathroom for the officer in charge. Upstairs a hallway led to a bathroom and a large dormitory room with a stairway that led up onto the lookout tower high above.

In the basement a Kohler plant generator charged a bank of batteries during the day for the 32-volt electrical system used at night. The station radio transmitter, located in a corner of the mess hall, was only used during a rescue call when the station boats were out. A coal-fired furnace heated the building, and a smaller coal-fired “jack” stove heated the water.

Rain water collected from a tin shed roof over a large concrete cistern provided our drinking and wash water. When due to a lack of rain or melting snow our water supply was low, we then trucked in our water in a tank wagon from Menemsha Pond to the station.

An equipment building housed the beach apparatus (breeches buoy rescue equipment) and a bulldozer (used to pull the equipment over the sand dunes and along the beach when necessary), and one stall housed a WW II bomb truck.

On the property there was an underground gasoline storage tank with a hand-cranked pump above. From time to time, in the middle of the night the lookout tower watch would observe some of the native population making a “midnight requisition.” There were times when the propane-gas refrigerator in the kitchen was raided. Nothing would be said, or done, about it; the Coast Guardsmen rationalized that in the interest of good “public relations,” aware just how tough times were for many Gay Headers; it was the best way.

To read the first installment, click here.